SPORTS PARENTING: Is It Okay for Our Young Athletes to Fail in Sports?

As many of you know, I was on vacation last week. That break gave me some time to catch up on a lot of email and articles, and during my time off, one parenting column in particular – written by a parenting reporter from CNN, Kelly Wallace —  caught my eye.

The column’s headline was: Why Is it So Hard to Let Our Kids Fail?

Wallace was writing about all different aspects of kids growing up and competing in school, theatre, music, and so on. And competing in sports was most definitely in the mix as well.

She was asking why do so many of us – sports parents included – simply don’t allow our kids to go out, try, compete, and if they fail, well, they’ll simply have to learn and cope with the sometimes harsh realities of life. In many ways, it’s what many of us sports parents went through and experienced when we were growing up.

Her overriding point, of course, is that kids learning what they are NOT good at is just as important as finding out what they DO have talent for, and what activities they enjoy. Those experiences, as one of my WFAN Radio listeners today called: “Those activities that put a smile on your child’s face.”

But as we all know, the problem is that parents today tend to rush in and do whatever they can to insure that their little one DOES succeed in their athletic pursuits, regardless of what kind of implications that kind of parental interference may have.

This is, of course, the essence and core of the meddling sports parent. Perhaps that’s where the problem begins with today’s Mom and Dads, all of whom want their sons and daughters to play sports well and to excel. But when Mom and Dad sense that their kid is struggling, or shows signs of just being average, then Mom and Dad will start to intervene any way they can to make sure their kid improves.

The CNN column by Kelly Wallace suggests that parents take a different approach – that it’s okay if your kid is struggling or not doing well. In effect, that it’s part of the natural process of growing up for a kid to come to grips with the fact that he or she is not going to be a great athlete – and that’s okay. Or if they want to develop their mastery of athletic skills, then it’s up to the youngster – not the parent – to do what it takes to get better.

WHOSE DREAM IS IT?

After all, every Mom and Dad wants their youngster to excel in life, whether it be sports, academics, or in other endeavors. That’s what parents dream about, and hope for. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But when the reality quietly sinks in that my child is not going to be a star athlete, that’s where Moms and Dads often find themselves becoming over-involved. They seem to have the sense that if my kid is underachieving, I need to get them a special skills coach, or a private coach, or get them on a better travel team, then they’ll begin to live up to expectations. In short, more often than not in our competitive youth sports world, this is the typical knee-jerk reaction from the parents.

But are we doing our children a disservice by jumping in and doing these kinds of things? Would they be better off if we simply left them alone, and if they don’t get better in a sport, well, that’s okay. Their world — nor ours — won’t come to an end.

Or, if the kids do want to get better, they will find their own pathway to improve their skills. After all, isn’t that what we did growing up, back in the day before parents were so involved in kids’ sports?

As Kelly Wallace writes:  There is no question that one of the most difficult things about being a parent is letting our children stumble, fail, make mistakes. From her perspective, making mistakes and failing is all part of maturing as kids.

But does that approach work with kids and sports? That is, at some point, especially at the youth level where kids are first learning the basic skills of a sport, they DO need to be coached and taught. I do feel that any youngster just starting out in sports needs the benefit of some solid coaching on the basics, everything from the rules of the game to learning how to develop individual skills that will help their appreciation of the sport.

Yet to me, the key difference is that it’s always much, much better if the youngster comes to the coach or to you, their parent, and asks to help them with their soccer dribbling, or fielding in baseball, or in shooting a basketball. If they have the inherent drive and motivation to come to you to improve their game, then it’s fine for you to help out. Why? Because it’s the CHILD who is showing the desire to get better – NOT the PARENT dictating to the child. And to me, that’s a big difference.

Several of the callers brought up this theme this morning on the radio show, and I couldn’t agree with them more. Too many parents take the attitude with their youngster with: “Hey, don’t you want to get better in sports? Don’t you want to be as good as your friends?” As you might imagine, that kind of negative motivation does not work, and yet too many parents think it’s an appropriate kind of statement.

Bottom line? Yes, especially when kids are just starting out in sports (up to age 9), it’s perfectly fine to let them explore all sorts of sports, and see which of them appeal to them. And if they enjoy a sport or two, chances are they will want to come back to it, over and over again, and at some point, will come to you for some coaching tips.

That’s the best solution. Because the initiative is coming from your child – not from you the parent.

 

 

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SPORTS PARENTING TRENDS: What’s the Key Ingredient for Young Athletes Today?

 Advice From the Pros to Parents and Coaches

By Doug Abrams

In the Sun Herald late last month, writer Patrick Ochs reported on a talk that former all-star outfielder Darryl Strawberry delivered in Biloxi, Mississippi. Reflecting on his 17 seasons in Major League Baseball, Strawberry spoke about youth league parents who stunt their players’ development by sapping their enthusiasm for the game.

“We need to get back to letting kids have fun and enjoy themselves,” said Strawberry. “Parents need to chill out. Don’t go to games yelling. Let them play.” The eight-time all star does not like what he sees. “Parents today push their kids and before you know it they’re 18, 19 and don’t want to play anymore.”

His solution? “We just have to get back to understanding that the game is fun. . . . It’s fun. Fun. Remember, fun.”

Bjorn Borg

Strawberry is the latest former professional star to talk about fun to youth league parents and coaches. Earlier last month, CNN’s Sophie Eastaugh wrote about an interview that former tennis great Bjorn Borg gave to Open Court’s Pat Cash. “When we’re traveling around Sweden we see all these crazy parents, I mean it’s unbelievable,” said Borg. “[Y]ou can see sometimes the kids don’t want to play. It’s like the parents push them to do something they don’t want to do.”

Borg’s bottom line about youth tennis? “At this age, it has to be fun.”

John Smoltz

In his 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech, pitcher John Smoltz also stressed fun as an emotional foundation of youth sports. At the same time, he warned about physical excesses, including premature specialization in one sport and what he called the “epidemic” of Tommy John surgeries stemming from overuse of youthful pitching arms.

“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at fourteen and fifteen years old. That you have time, that baseball’s not a year-round sport. That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports,” said the perennial major league all-star who played three sports each year in his youth.

Since his induction in Cooperstown, Smoltz has also emerged as a leading opponent of using radar guns to rate youth league pitchers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports his advice that by encouraging youngsters to throw as hard as they can too often, this increasingly popular technology can actually damage their arms and their future prospects.

Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr

Two hockey legends also stress fun and decry premature specialization. Wayne Gretzky was a multi-sport athlete in his youth, and in the Globe and Mail he said that he encouraged his five children to have fun with various sports. “Just go out and play,” he told them. “Just enjoy it. . . . Learn what it’s like to be around your teammates – the highs of winning and the lows of losing.”

“The love and passion I had for the game was my key,” says Bobby Orr, who remains thankful that he “never had that taken out of me by my parents or a silly coach.” “I have stacks of clippings that tell of children being berated by an angry parent, humiliated by a frustrated coach,” he told the Boston Herald. “We’re talking about serious hurts, damaging blows, very personal wounds, all knowingly inflicted by adults who ought to know better.”

Orr told the Toronto Star that when parents and coaches stray, the problem “usually takes care of itself. The player will eventually quit hockey; it’s as simple and sad as that.”

Striking a Common Chord

This accumulated wisdom from these and other pros about emotional and physical excesses in youth sports should resonate with parents and coaches. The pros know what they are talking about.

After moving up from rung to rung, the pros have reached the pinnacle of their games and they are looking down from the top. They know what it takes, and they know what wise parenting and wise coaching can mean to the minuscule few youth leaguers who make it big, but even more important to the multitude who do not. These elite athletes speak from the heart because usually they are not talking only about their own children. They are talking about what is best for the millions of American kids who play sports every year.

Virtually all of these athletes strike the same refrain – make the game fun, maintain perspective, don’t burn out the kids, don’t physically overtax their young bodies. If more parents and coaches took this advice, perhaps the percentages of youth leaguers who quit playing by about the age of 13 would fall below the usual range of about 70%.

Listening to star professional athletes talk about nurturing young athletes must resemble listening, say, to a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry talk about what makes high school chemistry classes work. The Laureate may say the same things that the local high school chemistry teacher says. Parents may think that they know better than the teacher, but it is hard for parents to close their ears to someone whose resume includes a Nobel Prize.

Parents and coaches similarly may think that they know better than the array of youth sports reform voices who have been sounding the alarm for the past several years. But it is quite another thing for the adults to close their ears to someone whose resume includes major league stardom and perhaps a Hall of Fame nod.

More youth leaguers would be much better off if more parents and coaches would listen to the wisdom that the pros speak in unison.

 

Sources: Patrick Ochs, Darryl Strawberry Has the Best Advice For Baseball Parents, Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald, June 28, 2016; Sophie Eastaugh, Bjorn Borg Shocked By “Crazy Tennis Parents”, CNN, June 16, 2016; John Smoltz, Hall of Fame Induction Speech, http://genius.com/John-smoltz-hall-of-fame-induction-speech-annotated (July 26, 2015); Mike Luck, Smoltz: Radar Guns Not Good For Youth Sports, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jan. 12, 2016; Eric Duhatschek, The Great One’s Message to Parents: Let Your Kids Have Fun, The Globe and Mail, Sept. 26, 2008, p. A3; Joe Fitzgerald, Adult Egos Stick It to Youth Sports, Boston Herald, Mar. 14, 2012, p. 10; Bobby Orr, Orr: My Story (2013); Stephen Whyno, Hockey According to Bobby Orr, The Canadian Press, Oct. 16, 2013, p. S3; Paul Irish, Orr’s Hockey Message? Have Fun: NHL Legend Says Parental Pressure Can Make Kids Quit, Toronto Star, Oct. 15, 2012, E5.

ABUSIVE COACHES: The Ongoing Issue of Entitlement with Volunteer Coaches

Entitlement is another one of those relatively new concepts in youth sports that really didn’t exist when most of today’s sports parents were growing up. Like the concept of travel teams, or burnout, or repetitive use injuries, coaching entitlement is one of those  issues that has sprung up like an annoying weed in youth sports, and it has unfortunately spread all over the country.

Let me first define what entitlement is. As you might imagine, it comes directly from those parents who are over-involved in their kid’s sports, either as a volunteer coach, or in many cases, as a travel team coach.

The problem is especially evident when a parent feels that since he or she is volunteering their team to work with kids, then there should be sometime “built-in” special side benefits to being a volunteer.

What are the tell-tale signs of Entitlement?

The general philosophy goes something like this:

“If I’m serving as the head coach of this team, and giving of my time and energy without any compensation, then certainly I should be allowed to give my youngster a little break here or there…”

Translation: Since I’m the head coach, my kid is entitled to more playing time than the other kids, or my kid is allowed to play the position he or she wants, or my kid is going to be a team captain, or have their choice of what uniform number they want, or my kid is going to be on the All-Star team.

This is the essence of Entitlement in youth sports. Too many Coaches/Parents feel that, somehow, they – or their kids – are entitled to be treated a little more fairly than the other kids.

Of course, this is NOT the way it’s supposed to be.

It’s as though Parents who volunteer are not aware of the definition of the word Volunteer: which means to give of one’s time FREELY with no expectation of compensation or personal benefit.

But somehow, that simple and clear definition of volunteer coach has been lost in recent years.

Look – if you volunteer, and  you’re giving of your time as a coach, or an assistant coach, you MUST treat all the children in the same way. You CAN NOT show favoritism or nepotism to your own kid. And you certainly can’t give special perks to your son or daughter – just because they are your son or daughter!

Is this pattern now to expected?

The callers on the show this AM all felt that not only is coaching entitlement a continuing issue, but that in many towns, it’s now become a part of life. That is, if your kid plays on a local youth or travel team, all the other parts are now conditioned to assume that the coach is going to play his or her kid more. That this is part of the accepted way of having your kid play for another Mom or Dad.

That trend, of course, is most disturbing. One caller, a physician in his 50s, said that he still recalled with great bitterness when he was told, as a 17-year-old baseball player, by a summer league coach that the coach was going to cut him simply so he could make room for his own son on the team.

The doctor spoke with great emotion as to how hurt he felt by this coaching entitlement. After 30 years, it still bothered him as being cruel and unfair.

Too often youth coaches today forget that the words they use, and the actions they implement, have a very strong, life-long impact on kids. And especially for youngsters just starting out in sports, which is supposed to be all about equality and success based upon meritocracy, this kind of favoritism played by youth coaches is just inexcusable.

Bottom line? If you’re helping out as a coach and your kid is on the team, be doubly sure that no one of the other parents can ever accuse you of giving favors to your own child. You do that just once, and you will run the risk of alienating all of those other parents and their kids.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Inside the Mysterious World of Baseball Scouting

There was a time in which baseball scouts and associate scouts (aka “bird dogs”) were found everywhere at amateur games. High school games, college, summer leagues, Babe Ruth games, you name it.

If a young man had a big game at the plate or on the mound, chances were good that somebody representing a major league team was there to see it. And then that scout would make a point to come back and watch that player, again and again. Not only to see if that one day’s performance was just a fluke, but whether the kid could perform consistently well. In other words, the scout wanted to see if the youngster were a real prospect – not just a suspect.

But then the scouting landscape changed. Billy Beane become the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Being a small market team with limited financial resources, Beane searched for another way to find prospects and major league players and bring them to Oakland. Along the way, he discovered the lure of Sabrmetrics and analytics, and before too long, Beane had pretty much scrapped the old method of relying upon scouts in the field and instead invented “laptop” scouting in which high school and college ballplayers were “scouted” by their statistical performances.

If you have ever read the book MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis or seen the movie by the same name, this new approach is dramatically illustrated. Oakland pretty much gave up on most of its scouts, and instead scouted players electronically. And Oakland did, to its credit, have some success.

DOES MONEYBALL REALLY WORK?

But as Al Goldis, the legendary baseball scout who was inducted into the Scout’s Hall of Fame a few years ago, points out: “Fans forget that when the Oakland A’s had success during Beane’s tenure, it was because they had three outstanding starting pitchers on their staff. That simple reality was overlooked by the movie, and many people don’t realize how good Oakland’s starting pitching was.”

Good point. And in addition, since those days, Oakland has never really become a major contender since MONEYBALL days. Critics say it’s because other teams have embraced analytics and caught up with Oakland. But as an article in Baseball America pointed out a few years ago, for several years after Beane instituted laptop scouting, the A’s didn’t produce many major league players. In other words, the Moneyball approach to finding players didn’t work well.

This was just one of the inside revelations that Al Goldis presented on the show this morning (you can hear the podcast simply by going to WFAN.com and find the link to Podcasts.)

Al also talked about how important it is for young pitchers to not only have the right mechanics in order to prevent serious arm injury, but also to have a sense of rhythm. That is, pitchers need to be aware of how they feel when performing, and that they need to stay within their personal rhythm. He also strongly advocated that pitchers take at least four months off each year so that their arms can rest and fully heal – even if they are not injured. This is done to prevent injury to young arms.

MARKETING YOURSELF

Goldis made it clear that scouts get their leads on possible prospects from high school coaches, umpires who work the games, and generally word of mouth. He was convinced that if a kid can play and has potential, somebody will notice and word will eventually get to a bird dog or a scout.

That being said, he made it clear that it’s a two-way street. Ballplayers just can’t sit back and wait for scouts to come to them. Young and hungry ballplayers should go to major league websites and see when tryout camps are being held in their area. Or, if the player is out of college, then they should contact some local independent teams, who are always looking for players. Independent professional teams often send its players to contracts with teams that are affiliated with major league teams.

I have known Al Goldis for more than 40 years, and no one is better versed in the art and science of scouting than he is. I could spend hours talking baseball with him. To that end, if you have a youngster who aspires to play pro baseball, let me suggest you pick up a copy of Al’s book, HOW TO MAKE PRO SCOUTS NOTICE YOU, which is considered by many to be the leading guide on the topic. You can buy it either in paperback or as an ebook on Amazon.

 

SPORTS PARENTING TRENDS: Are Kids Born with Grit…Or Do They Learn it?

There’s a major New York Times best-selling book that was published about two months ago, and it has the simple title of GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

The author is Dr. Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology  at the Univ of Penn who has studied this trait – grit — for several years.

Her book’s basic thesis –which clearly has great application in the world of sports, competition, and winning in both athletics and in life – is that those individuals who succeed in sports and in the real world have developed, or are blessed with, a sense of grit….and grit is all about Passion and Perseverance to make your goals come true.

To me, grit is defined as having that inner desire or drive to work ever harder at achieving one’s goals; to put more effort into succeeding than perhaps one’s peers, even if that means overcoming major adversity.

Now, I don’t think that there’s any doubt that we all want our kids to have a sense of grit in their lives, especially if they are aspiring athletes, or want to do well in school, or to succeed when it comes to their careers.

But I worry that the overall takeaway from the bestseller GRIT might be somewhat misleading. That is, that if your youngster is told that he or she needs to develop this sense of overachieving drive, then he or she can – and will — succeed in sports.

QUOTING DAVID DENBY OF THE NEW YORKER

I have touched on this point before. While developing a sense of drive, or grit, is certainly a positive element in one’s youth, I become concerned if a parent or a child buys into it to the point where:

  1. it becomes the overwhelming force in their child’s athletic development, and
  2.  they truly believe that by simply working harder at their sport, they will go on to earn a college scholarship and play pro ball.

In short, it just doesn’t happen that way in the real world. And that’s why grit and its role needed to be clarified for sports parents and youth coaches.

Ironically, I was reading a critique of GRIT a few days ago by David Denby of the New Yorker, and he picked up on this troubling takeaway as well. Denby, too, doesn’t buy into this pop psychology premise that if your child show some athletic promise — and if he or she works their tail off — then they ultimately prevail in sports.

Denby notes a letter to the editor to the New York Times Book Review which had given GRIT a positive review. I quote from Denby’s thoughtful column:

And what if a child has only moderate talent for her particular passion?

That’s the ultimate question every sports parent has to keep in mind. Mike Egan, a former member of the Marine Corps, wrote a letter to the Times Book Review in response to a positive review of Duckworth’s book. “Anyone who would tell a child that the only thing standing between him or her and world-class achievement is sufficient work,” Egan wrote, “ought to be jailed for child abuse.”

Well, that’s perhaps a little extreme, to be sure. But it’s an important point: That just having grit, and a desire to overcome adversity, and even to commit 10,000 hours to practice, is just not enough.

What an athlete needs beyond grit is actual, God-given athletic talent. Without that key ingredient, grit and hard work will only take your athlete so far.

And the vast majority of the callers on my WFAN radio this show this morning also agreed that the gift of grit, like pure athletic talent, is something a child is born with in their DNA. Like being born to grow to a certain size, or having a certain eye color, grit is part of that inherited package. True, as a parent, you need to explain to your child the importance of grit and the drive to succeed. But as so many parents have asked me over the years, “My kid has great natural ability…but doesn’t seem to have the inherent drive to push himself. What can I do?”

In my experience, there’s not much you can do. Great talent without an innate drive will only get your athlete so far.

LIVING UP TO ONE’S POTENTIAL

What’s my take? Yes, you let your athlete know that in order to master and perfect skills, they need to practice, practice, and practice….BUT that the overall goal is not necessarily to play pro ball, or to play college ball, but to play to the best of their God-given abilities.

That’s a big, big difference.

In other words, their God-given abilities may take them only as far as the local HS varsity….or a club team or intramural team in college….And that’s fine.

And it’s up to you, as their parent, to truly accept that….to be supportive and proud….and not to be disappointed.

 

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: HS Guidelines Should Be Mandatory, Not Just Voluntary

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back:

Michigan’s New Guidelines on Full-Contact High School Football Practices

By Doug Abrams

In an article by Ted Roelofs last week, Bridge Magazine reported about the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s new concussions guidelines concerning the permissible length of football teams’ full-contact drills. The new MHSAA guidelines maximum is 90 minutes per week.

The problem, noted by Mr. Roelofs, is that the guidelines are just that – guidelines. That is, they are voluntary. Remaining in place is the mandatory state rule, which sets a maximum of six hours of full-contact drills per week (an average of more than one hour a day in any week when a team practices daily before Friday night).

The article reports that Michigan remains out-of-step with several other states that mandate 90-minute weekly maximums, and even with a few states that mandate lower weekly maximums. These other states have reputations as high school football hotbeds, but their statewide activities associations doubtlessly recognize that adolescent concussions, and even repeated sub-concussive head hits, can leave student-athletes with irreversible short-term and long-term damage. Last year, a study published in JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association] Pediatrics found that repetitive head trauma occurs more often in youth football practice sessions than in games.

Coaching Integrity

A MHSAA spokesperson told Mr. Roelofs that he does not foresee problems with the new guidelines because, he says, coaches understand the risks of head trauma and no Michigan high school comes close to conducting six hours of weekly full-contact drills. Writing in USA TODAY, however, Ben Rohrbach asks the obvious question: “When the Michigan High School Athletic Association recommends 90 minutes of full-contact football practice per week, but doesn’t actually restrict coaches from using all six allotted hours of full-contact drills in a week, you can’t help but wonder if teams will actually take their governing body’s suggestion seriously.”

In my years of coaching, I never met a coach who ever wanted to see any of his players suffer injury or ill health. But voluntary full-contact guidelines nonetheless leave the door ajar for coaches who might feel tempted to exceed them. A coach, for example, might feel frustrated during a losing streak, or overzealous in the days before a big game or the playoffs. When word gets around that one or more teams have exceeded the 90-minute guideline, the temptation for other teams also to inch toward excess might not be far behind.

Strength From the Top

In interscholastic sports and youth leagues alike, strength and wisdom must begin at the top, and not at the middle or bottom. In the absence of state legislative action, the “top” here is MHSAA, which could level the playing field with a weekly full-contact maximum of 90 minutes or less, mandatory for all school districts and all football teams in the state.

Player safety should not depend on self-restraint by individual local school boards, principals, athletic directors, or coaches. Nor should player safety depend on individual parents who demand more protective concussion standards for their own children. In a high profile sport such as high school football, taking an individual stand risks arousing the sort of local criticism that can make silence seem the easier path.

Ongoing medical research informs us that the stakes for young athletes are simply too high to forego meaningful safety measures that maintain the essential character of the game. The MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, for example, maintains a web-based Youth Sports Concussion Safety Center that for years has collected a downloadable treasure trove of informative articles and commentary written by leading experts in a variety of disciplines. Accumulated learning means putting the players first.

Lawsuits

Concussions damage actions are expensive, and they happen. I also wonder whether, by not joining several other states that have mandated 90-minute weekly maximums (or less), MHSAA unnecessarily weakens its position in any future negligence lawsuit that names the association as a defendant.

What if a concussed football player and his parents allege that the player’s team routinely exceeded the 90-minute voluntary guidelines while remaining within the association’s six-hour mandate? If I were MHSAA’s defense lawyer, I would much rather argue that the statewide association mandated best practices – the nationally emerging 90-minute mandated weekly maximum, or less — and not that the association condoned the team’s exceeding these maximums.

In damage actions, defendants tend to fare better when the judge or jury perceives them as acting within the mainstream. Perceptions help influence settlement negotiations, where most lawsuits terminate short of trial.

Some voices warn that concussion risks in contact and collision youth sports such as football may jeopardize the ability of high school programs and youth leagues to maintain affordable insurance, not only for players, but also for adults who conduct the competition. If the MHSAA spokesperson is right that none of the state’s high school football teams currently approaches the six-hour mandatory maximum, the voluntary guidelines bring jeopardy that seems avoidable and counter-productive – and dangerous.

 

Sources: Ted Roelofs, Bridge Magazine, June 16, 2016, http://bridgemi.com/2016/06/michigan-balks-at-rule-shortening-full-contact-practice-for-high-school-football/  Thomas P. Dompier et al., Incidence of Concussion During Practice and Games in Youth, High School, and Collegiate American Football Players, JAMA Pediatrics, http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2281575  (May 4, 2015); Ben Rohrbach, Michigan Recommends Less Full-Contact Football Practice, But Won’t Require It, USA TODAY High School Sports, June 17, 2016 (emphasis in original); MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Youth Sports Concussion Safety Center, http://momsteam.com/health-safety/concussion-safety

FATHER’S DAY 2016: A Day to Salute Sports Dads Everywhere

Today is Father’s Day, and to help celebrate the day, I thought I’d ask you to take a moment and reflect upon what’s the very best piece of advice you ever received from your Dad when it comes to sports.

That’s right. What particular memory do you have of your Dad when he stepped up for you in your sports career. Maybe it was when you were down in the dumps, and he gave you a pep talk. Or perhaps it was at the height of your athletic career, and your dad was there to help you celebrate the moment.

Let’s face it — for the vast majority of Dads who are involved in sports today, or who played sports when they were kids, chances are that it was your father who not only introduced you to sports, but it was Dad who was there for you throughout your years as a kid, right through HS and beyond.

The bonding that takes place between Dad and youngster is well known. For many of us today, it’s truly a main part of our everyday way of life. Too many of us take all of this for granted, so do the right thing and give your Dad a call to say thanks, or give him a hug.

I’ll share one of the more memorable stories from my past and my Dad.

When I was in college and playing summer ball in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League – the ACBL – I dreamed of someday getting a chance to go to the next level – to play pro ball. But to do that, I first had to prove my worth in the ACBL, and the ABCL was – and still is – top competition. Top baseball players from top college programs.

In any event, one hot steamy summer afternoon we were playing out at a field at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Institute in Queens, NY. I was playing for a team based in Brooklyn, and I believe the opposing team was from Long Island. I was psyched to have a great game – especially because the opposing pitcher was a soft-tossing right hander who seemingly had nothing more than a big sweeping curve ball.

But on my first at-bat, amazingly, I struck out. Even more determined during my second at-bat, another series of curve balls fooled me and I struck out a second time.

My third at-bat? Another whiff. And by the fourth at-bat, I did everything to try and slap the curve ball the other way. No luck. I struck out for an unbelieveable fourth time. To this day, some 40 years later, I still can’t believe it!

Four at-bats….four strikeouts. The game ended with my brutal performance at the plate and  I was beyond inconsolable.

WHAT DID MY DAD DO?

On the long drive back home, my Dad didn’t say anything or bother me for a long, long time. He could see I was visibly upset, and he wisely just let me stew in my juices.

But as we approached home, my Dad said quietly to me: “You know, Rick, if you aspire to play professional baseball, you’re going to have to learn that baseball is a game based upon extreme frustration — built upon a layer of disappointment. That’s just how it is….and the rules are not just for you, but they apply to anyone who plays the game.

“The key is this….if you can somehow move past the emotional frustration of having a bad day….and then try to learn from what you didn’t do well….and then try to figure out a way to correct the issues, then you will be taking a giant step forward in terms of learning how to make adjustments in your game.”

He went further: “Amateur players throw bats and helmets when they get frustrated but pro ballplayers go about their business, and think about what they did wrong, and how to correct it. That’s a big difference between amateurs and pro’s.”

I’ll never forget those words of advice from my Dad, and as noted, that was some 40 years ago. Thanks Dad. I was lucky enough the following spring to be drafted by the Detroit Tigers after my junior year in college, and I played two years in the minors before deciding to retire.

Oh, and by the way. Just for the record, that pitcher with the sweeping curve ball? His name was Steve Ratzer, who turned out was a star pitcher for St. John’s University , and Steve ultimately made it all the way to the big leagues.

So, although I didn’t know it at the time, and I felt so miserable, I was striking out against a future major league pitcher.

Funny how things work out. But the paternal advice has never left me.

COPING WITH ADVERSITY: What Do You Say to Your Athlete When They Have A Bad Game?

You know what’s hard to do if you’re a parent?  When your athletic son or daughter has a tough game. And afterwards, you want to say just the right thing to boost their spirits.

But finding the right words, or knowing the right time to say something, is very, very hard.

Now — and this may sound incredibly obvious to many of you — but for starters, it’s really quite difficult to sit in the stands or to stand on the sidelines and watch your son or daughter perform during crucial moments of the game.

To be sure, if you’re like most Moms and  Dads, it’s both thrilling as well as totally nerve-racking to watch your son or daughter get up to bat in a baseball game in a close game…or go to the free throw line in a close game….or to be the goalie in a soccer match where the score is tied and the other team is threatening to score.

Of course, many parents simply release their anxiety by cheering loudly for their kid to do well. Or by saying quiet prayers that their kid will come through when the pressure is on.

Others, though, have a very hard time, They simply stand off to the side from all the others, and do their best to swallow their nervousness. They’re nervous for their child.

Of course, lots of former top professional athletes have noted over the years that it’s a lot tougher to be a parent and to watch one’s kid play — than to have played as an athlete themselves.

I feel the same way.

When I was a kid, I loved played sports. I was competitive. And I had success. But I got nervous before I played in games. Yet once the game started, I was able to turn the pre-game jitters into a focused drive to compete and play well. I felt confident of my skills during close games probably because I had devoted so much time to practice and more practice that I had built up a sense of inner confidence in my game.

But watching as a parent? Well, that’s tough. Whether it’s watching your kid compete in sports, or giving a speech in a school auditorium, or performing a key role in the school play, or giving a solo performance in a concert….you instinctively hold your breath, try to smile bravely and look positive, and hope that your son or daughter comes through.

And most times, they do. We then exhale, we smile, and we celebrate.

But what do you when they misfire?

They strike out. They let in the winning goal. They miss the key shot.  

First, your heart, of course, aches. But then, what do you say or do? When the game is over, and your child comes over to you, what is your response? What do you say? How do give them the pep talk, the magical words, they desperately crave that will make them feel better?

Do you simply tell them to “shake it off” and promise them they’ll do better next time?

That it’s only a game..and not to sweat it?

Any other clichés that come to mind?

Or do you take a different approach. Do you talk about those other plays of their game in which they did well? Or do you zero in on where they failed, and how they can work to get better?

Or do you say nothing at all, and let them fight through the disappointment?

If you have a child who plays sports, I guarantee that you have had to encounter this kind of situation at one point or another in your life.

As a parent, what do you say? What do you do when things didn’t go their way in the game.

Lots of callers had superb suggestions this AM on WFAN when focusing on this issue. Here’s a quick recap which you might find helpful:

o Always remind your athlete to “do their best.” If they give their best effort on the field, then they’ll  be better off when coping with disappointment. But remind them that in order to do their best, they need to prepare with practice, practice, and more practice.

o Sometimes, you have to give “a tip of the cap” to the opposing player or team. Nobody wins every game they play, and sometimes, on any given day, the opponent is a little sharper in their game than you are. Please remind your son or daughter that this does happen, and when it does, you need to salute the other team.

o Explain to your child that losing is a major part of any competition. Yes, everybody focuses on winning, but losing is just as common.

o Tell your child that the best way to benefit from a loss is to learn from it. Try and distill why one didn’t prevail, and what can be done to learn from those mistakes.

o Most of all, right after the game, there’s really no need for words. Give your child a good, solid hug, let their tears flow, and then get in the car to give them some privacy and to allow them to feel their disappointment. But later on in the day, check on them, and see if they want to talk at all. If they do, let them lead the conversation — not you.

COACHING TIPS: Learning The Japanese Way of Baseball

Rocky Pasquale has a most unusual job – a job in which he has been most successful.

For the last 15 years, Rocky has been the head coach at the Keio Academy, a HS in Purchase, NY, which is attended by Japanese students. In Rocky’s tenure, the Unicorns have won five Sectional championships.

That’s a most impressive overall accomplishment, considering that Rocky doesn’t speak any Japanese, and very few of his players speak any English. In addition, his teams tend to be considerably smaller in size than their American baseball opponents, so Rocky has tapped into his players’ ability to bunt, hit-and-run, suicide squeeze, throw strikes, and play solid defense.

“We speak the universal language of baseball,” says Rocky, “So for the most part, the language issue really isn’t a problem.”

This approach to “small ball” has worked very well for Keio. That, plus a cultural mentality that the “team always come first,” has led the Unicorns to great success. Coach Pasquale has fully embraced this style of play, which has become something of an anomaly in American sports these days where kids are so focused on their individual stats like their batting average or ERA.

Let me quote Rocky here: “It’s the unselfishness of playing a team sport. Culturally, that’s what they’re about. They’re not about the individual, and when you’re coaching a team, that’s huge. There are no egos out here and nobody is worried about their batting average or anything like that. If they haven’t done their job, they take it to heart and it hurts them. The unselfishness is the big thing which makes it great to work with these guys.”

Unselfish? Not concerned about their personal stats? Feel badly if they don’t get the job done? This is American baseball?

No, it’s Japanese baseball.

And it’s an approach that wins.

Some years ago, here in the US, kids approached the game in the same way. Lots of sacrifice bunts, know how to move the runner along, always be looking for a squeeze bunt. But these days, American players, in general, are exceedingly reluctant to bunt at any time, and as a consequence, they are not very good at it. In contrast, Rocky tells me that his kids are so good at bunting that he will often ask them to bunt with two strikes.

Rocky also tells me that his kids, who admittedly are from Japan and their parents aren’t around that much, rarely complain if ever about their kid’s spot in the lineup or their playing time. “I’m the envy of all the other HS coaches,” laughs Rocky, “The Keio parents never bother me.”

His players just win. They have little power. The team hit exactly one HR all season. They are smaller – his top pitcher this season was 5’8 and 130 pounds. But he threw strikes, rarely walked anyone, and changed speeds. His outfielders were quick and could run down long fly balls. His batters knew how to get on base and eventually score. And best of all, opposing teams knew coming into a game that they were going to be in for a real battle.

Think about this for a moment: a HS varsity team that wins championships by putting the team first, and one’s individual stats second. A team that knows how to play to its strengths. A team where the parents don’t interfere with the coaches.  A team where the kids are always respectful and always hustle on the field.

Sounds pretty good to me. I only wish more American HS teams (including kids and their parents) had the same kind of approach.

 

 

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: One HS Player’s Personal Story

The Life of The Concussed: One High School Players Account

By Elijah Rechler

“One Family, One Goal!” That was my high school football team’s motto. We were a tightknit group of brothers, and our goal was to achieve the highest caliber team both on and off the field. Each individual player felt an unwavering loyalty toward the rest of our unit. I did not care how many hits to the head I took or how confusing the play calls became: this was my team, my family and I would not abandon them.

Those were the thoughts that crossed my mind in the huddle right before the play that would end my eleven year football career. Three plays earlier I received the first out of many devastating hits that sent my brain flying into the front of my skull.

I played fullback on offense which meant my job was to block for the quarterback as he dropped back to throw the ball. Our quarterback’s name was Corey Goldglit, and although I gave him trouble for being a year younger than me, he was a member of our team and one of my best friends. As long as I was in that backfield and breathing, no one would touch him.

Corey snapped the ball from the center and dropped back, I was at his left hip and immediately saw a defender coming from the right side, head first, trying to spear my quarterback and possibly injuring him. Since I was on the opposite side of the defender, I would have been too late if I attempted a standard blocking approach, one that would have protected my head. Instead I made the quick decision to dive head first to the defender before he could spear

Corey. I felt a harsh vibration that rattled my helmet. My eyes lost focus and my entire body tensed up. My teeth clenched so hard that my molars bite right through the ends of my mouth piece.

After I landed, I distinctly remember hearing my helmet vibrating even as I lay motionless on the ground. The play was over, and Corey got the throw off. I did my job. One must understand that football players are not dumb. We know when we get hit in the head; we know when we should stop. We just don’t care. The team is more important. I had to keep going.

Play after play I received the same hit from the same defender in order to protect our quarterback. My coach screamed something to me from the sideline. I hear noises but not words.

Right as I came out of the huddle to what could have been a devastating event for my mind and body, I was saved by halftime. I waddled off the field and my coaches immediately noticed something was wrong. At first they thought I was overheating which led them to remove my pads. I then went on to tell them that I felt like I was going to throw up. My coaches and our trainer then understood that I had suffered a head injury. I was done for the day but my experience with brain trauma was just beginning.

As soon as I got home I developed a worsening headache. Within a few hours the presence of any light sent me into hysterics. I knew I had a concussion, but it felt like something much worse. With sunglasses taped over my eyes and my mom walking me hand in hand like an infant, I finally made it to the doctor the next afternoon. He took off my glasses and shined a light in my eye. It felt as if I stared directly into the sun. The doctor told me that I had suffered a serious concussion and should consider giving up football in order to prevent permanent damage.      Give up football for good? Absolutely not, I was going to play the following weekend. He told my mom and me that the more concussions one sustains, the less impact it takes for them to occur and the longer lasting the effects of the brain damage become. I didn’t know it then, but my doctor was describing the signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Still, I begged him to give me another chance on the field. He eventually relented and told me that if I spend a couple weeks at home he would consider letting me return.

I spent a week at home in complete darkness with no one around me, no TV, no reading, and no exercise. I was losing my mind because I was now feeling absolutely fine! Even though I was supposed to spend another week at home I couldn’t take it anymore. I was going to school on Monday. My first day back I was welcomed by my coach. We had a meeting in which he told me he was hesitant to ever let me play again. As I started to break down, he began comforting me by saying that to get another concussion could permanently alter my intelligence and my ability to be the person I am. Just as I was with my doctor, I wasn’t having it. I didn’t understand the effects that CTE could have on me. I was worried about breaking a leg or tearing my ACL, not about what was going on in my brain because I just couldn’t see it.

Just like every other football player in the world, all that mattered to me in that moment was getting on the field. Once again I was exceedingly persistent. Although my coach would not let me play the next weekend, if my symptoms remained dormant he would let me play in the game a week later. Unfortunately, the happiness did not last long. By the end of first period, I was laying on the floor of my 10 person English class with my backpack over my head, writhing in agony.

It was, of course, too early for me to return to school or football. I spent another week at home wondering how a headache could last so long. What I didn’t know then was that my brain was trying to heal, and every time I betrayed the process by going outside or to school I made the initial damage worse. Fortunately for me, I had people in my life telling me to slow down and let myself recover. Sadly, NFL players tend to have people telling them to do the opposite. When millions of dollars are at stake, football players will play every down no matter how damaged their brains are. The constant hits that they experience with no time for healing is what leads them to contract CTE, a deadly disease that causes aggression, confusion, memory loss, and destroys lives. I, however, am not an NFL player. I was forced to stay home for weeks until the headaches were unquestionably gone. Finally, the day came where I received both my doctor’s and coach’s approval to play in my last ever home game at night under the lights. It was time to rejoin my football family.

I was always nervous before games, but this time I wasn’t only nervous about messing a play or letting my team down. I was worried about the way my brain works, how I work through problems in a way that allows me to excel at my passions. What if another hit took that away from me? Is playing in this last game really worth giving up everything my brain has to offer? I stuffed the thoughts of concussions and CTE deep into the back of my mind. By the time the opening kickoff came around I was hyper focused on only one thing: I needed to win my last home game ever. As the rest of the team captains were injured, I was the last one left to be a designated leader in this game. It was up to me to take charge, to lead by example, and to be the person my coach believed me to be. I started the game on fire by scoring a touchdown, running for a hundred yards, keeping our defense alive and focused, and most importantly making sure my brothers had their heads in the game. Although we were losing, I was confident that we would be able to pull off the win.

Toward the beginning of the third quarter, Corey threw a high pass over the middle to one of our star players, Jalijah Daniels. If you follow football, you know that a high pass in that area of the field is extremely dangerous for a receiver. As Jalijah jumped up to catch the ball he was hit head on in the air by a defender. As Jalijah was slow to get up I turned to Corey and said, “Don’t you dare throw it high over the middle to me like that, you hear?” He gave his nod of consent to me. Unfortunately, things in football do not always work out as planned. About eight minutes later Corey had no choice but to throw me the same type of dangerous pass that had ended the game for Jalijah. As I jumped up in the middle of the field, I knew what was coming. Once again I did not care about the impending impact because I needed to catch this ball for the first down. Smack! I’m lifted by a defender and dropped. I knew it was a big hit because I could hear the home crowd yell in fear. As I got up I did not feel any pain. Yet,I was still horrified. I did not know whether or not I was hit in the head.

I went to the sideline and saw the look on my coach’s face. It was over. I was done. That was the last time I would ever play tackle football again. I started crying on my coach’s shoulder, and he began crying on mine. I was sad and angry but the truth is he saved my life in one way or the other. I never would have stopped if he hadn’t stopped me. That was the end of my story on the field. However, my interest in concussions and CTE has not relented ever since that first hit early in the season. Even today I often wonder if I am mentally slower than I was pre-concussion. I am for sure not slower in any way that is noticeable to the outside world, but only in a way that I only could notice.

Sometimes it is hard for me to remember names or dates. I feel like I can’t recall events or solve problems as quickly as I did in the past. It may just be because I am a busy college student filling my brain with facts and theories. However, there will always be a part of me that wonders if I had permanently hurt my brain for the game that I love. There is another part of me that is forever thankful to the people in my life that did not let me make it any worse.

Elijah Rechler is currently finishing his first year of college. He still loves tackle football, but no longer plays the game.